Saturday, October 7, 2017

Amo Cuba

How did visiting Cuba become a trip of my dreams? I can thank my ex-husband for that.  He opened my eyes to a culture that was delightfully different compared to the homogenous place where I grew up in Minnesota.  His family fled Cuba in 1958 when he was 11 years old just before Fidel Castro took over the country.  I met him in 1979 when I was 22 in Manhattan. As soon as we started dating, I was introduced to a different way of life that was both new and refreshing.

It started with the food. There were no bland meat and potatos served at my former in-laws' house. I became fond of sweet, fried plantains that I mistakenly took for bananas and futilely kept trying to fry when my ex-husband--looking puzzled--asked me what I was doing. "Trying to make plantains just like your mom's," I explained. That's when he laughed uncontrollably and informed me that plantains were a fruit specific to Latin America and could only be bought at Spanish grocery stores. How embarrassing.

On Carnival Paradise destined for Havana, Cuba
Then his mother served up the heavenly dessert, flan. I tried to make that too. But it fell apart when I plopped the cake pan upside down--making a pitiful display of mush that was supposed to be a perfectly molded round custard dish with liquid caramelized sugar drizzled over the top  Yum. When my former mother-in-law cooked the dish paella on Christmas eve, I finally gave up trying to master her Spanish cuisine skills. My ex-husband and I settled for indulging in authentic Cuban food by going to Victor's restaurant on the upper west side of Manhattan.

Falling in love with Cuban food was just the beginning. We were fortunate to live in Manhattan's Yorktown neighborhood where Corsos, a Latin nightclub, played live music almost every night. It had a huge wood dancing floor where people sashayed to the Rumba, Samba, Cha Cha and Mambo. At weddings and family parties, I learned to dance the Merengue. My ex-husband's uncles were patient teachers and I went on to embrace all Latin ballroom dancing. Later, I gained an appreciation of the the Buena Vista Club band--comprised of a group of old men who kept the unique sound of traditional Cuban music alive.

I had the privilege of serving a traditional American summer meal--hamburgers, potato salad, and corn on the cob to one of my ex-husband's aunt and uncle that his family was able to fly to the United States from Cuba back in the 1980s. I will never forget when his aunt bit into a sweet cob of corn and began to cry. I asked the family if I had done something wrong, No, they all shook their heads sadly and explained she was sobbing because she had not tasted corn so sweet since she was five years old. That is when I realized how fortunate I was not to live in a country so poor.  I remember a family backyard barbecue where an uncle dug a hole in the ground and roasted an entire pig. Initially,  I was taken aback but I had to admit, that pork was delicious. My ex-husband's extended family were acutely aware of the vast opportunities in a capitalist country and many of them owned their own businesses--including my former spouse.

The food, the music, the dancing and the people of Cuba inundated my life for 15 years. After I got divorced and as the years rolled by there were moments when I was suddenly jolted by the tastes, sounds and sights of Cuban culture and I felt a wave of nostalgia.

Overlooking Havana from the ship
When President Obama negotiated with the Cuban government to allow U.S. citizens to finally visit this isolated Caribbean island, I was determined to finally see this illusive country. Through my research, I decided taking a cruise from Florida to Cuba was the best way to go. I wasted no time booking a trip out of Tampa to Havana for my mom and me.

As Carnival ship Paradise approached Havana Bay with the El Morro fortress flanked on the left and the city full of Spanish architecture and 1950s vintage cars on the right, I was overwhelmed by the the moment. Finally, I would see this hauntingly beautiful city.

Havana enchanted  me with its narrow cobblestone streets and distressed architecture. The children played together instead of staring at cellphones. When I opened a bag of Snickers bars, one kid whistled and in seconds I was surrounded by hoards of children begging for the candy like I was Santa Claus.

At nightfall the city took on a different atmosphere, The buildings were lit up like Paris and music wafted through cobblstone streets. Taking the advise of our excursion tour guide, I wandered into the bar, Floridida, Ernest Hemmingway's favorite watering hole.

After all the work that Obama did to thaw relations between the United States and Cuba, Trump is taking a sledge hammer to it--just because he can. So before he totally destroys the budding cruise, airline and tourist industries that are helping the economies of both countries, go to Cuba now! Why wouldn't our so-called "business-man president" fully support the win-win financial benefits both countries have to gain by finally allowing US citizens to visit Cuba? The answer? There's nothing in it for him. As long as The Donald can't build a hotel property in Cuba and make a buck, he couldn't care less about Cuban tourism.
Posing in front of perfectly-restored vintage car
Havana by night
At Floridida's Hemingway's favorite watering hole

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